Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Otto Fenichel (1897-1946): remarkable psychoanalyst and committed Marxist


It is well attested, in the words of Leo Rangell’s introduction to Otto M. Fenichel’s The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (W.W. Norton & Co., 1996, first published in 1945),* that [a]fter Freud’s death, it was Fenichel, in effect, who collated the Freudian scientific oeuvre for the psychoanalysts of the time.” His works served as “teaching aids” for training analysts and provided “the psychoanalytic world a general theory that would be comprehensive for psychopathology and embrace normal behavior as well [as Erich Fromm and more recently Adam Phillips remind us, just what constitutes ‘normal’ mental health and behavior has not often been directly, let alone coherently or sufficiently, addressed both within and outside psychoanalytic circles].” Fenichel was an “integrator and systematizer,” a “clinician-theoretician” whose “erudition and scholarship were prodigious; his perceptions, incisive; his presentation, lively; his method, objective and fair.”                   

By contrast, Harold Bloom characterized Fenichel as the “grim encyclopaedist of the Freudian psychodynamics,” and it “was precisely the encyclopedic aspect of his work which aroused the criticism of Lacan,” who compared Fenichel’s work to “an enumeration of the ‘main sewer’ type,” arguing “for a distinction between a catalogue of past interpretations, and the actual job of finding the mutative interpretation within the actual session” [this criticism is a classic straw man, and shows Lacan did not read Fenichal’s work with the care it deserves]. [Lacan] also criticised Fenichel’s use of organic stages of development in his writing.”

The following from George Markari’s history of psychoanalysis introduces us to the character and political beliefs and values of Fenichel, which he viewed closely allied to or integrated with his clinical and theoretical work, even if he did not systematically spell out the details of a possibly holistic Marxist-psychoanalytic worldview: 

“Fenichel had always been an organized, a consensus builder who brought people together, and his commitment to Marxism was strong. In his steadfastness, Fenichel insisted on [Wilhelm] Reich’s right to publish his paper critiquing the death drive and was rewarded with the loss of his job as editor of the Zeitschrift. Freud’s autocratic reaction made it easy for Fenichel to take the high ground and appear dignified. In addition, he had many allies who held his encyclopedic knowledge and prodigious work in high esteem. After the Nazis took over Germany, Fenichel fled to Oslo; from there he pulled together his epistolary community of Marxist analysts. He had become convinced that all of Europe would be swept into fascism, and like it or not, the future for psychoanalysis was in America. For Fenichel [as it was for Freud], this was another kind of disaster, for he believed that the state of psychoanalytic knowledge in the United States was abysmal. In exile, Fenichel tried to preserve the field he loved from the twin perils of Nazi fascists and American know-nothings.”

Based on my acquaintance with Fenichel’s life and work to date, I’m inclined to dismiss the aforementioned comments of Bloom and Lacan as unfair when not wrong. 

From the brief Wikipedia entry on Fenichel:
“Otto Fenichel (2 December 1897 in Vienna – 22 January 1946 in Los Angeles) was a psychoanalyst of the so-called ‘second generation.’ [He] started studying medicine in 1915 in Vienna. Already as a very young man, when still in school, he was attracted by the circle of psychoanalysts around Freud. During the years 1915 and 1919, he attended lectures by Freud, and as early as 1920, at the age of 23, he became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. 

In 1922 Fenichel moved to Berlin. During his Berlin time, until 1934, he was a member of a group of Socialist and/or Marxist psychoanalysts (with Siegfried Bernfeld, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Simmel, Frances Deri and others). After his emigration – 1934 to Oslo, 1935 to Prague, 1938 to Los Angeles – he organized the contact between the worldwide scattered Marxist psychoanalysts by means of top secret ‘Rundbriefe,’ i.e. circular letters. Those Rundbriefe, which became publicly known only in 1998, can be counted among the most important documents pertaining to the problematic history of psychoanalysis between 1934 and 1945, especially in regard to the problem of the expulsion of Wilhelm Reich from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1934. In Los Angeles, Fenichel joined existing psychoanalytic circles and later helped found the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. His training analysands in Los Angeles included Ralph Greenson.”

Perhaps Fenichel’s foremost blind spot was his failure to objectively appreciate and evaluate the work of Melanie Klein. 

For an introduction to Fenichel’s life and work, please see Russell Jacoby’s The Repression of Psychoanalysis: Otto Fenichel and the Political Freudians (University of Chicago Press, 1986) and Elizabeth Ann Danto’s Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938 (Columbia University Press, 2005). See too the indexed references to Fenichel in George Makari’s Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis (Harper 2008). 

* As Fenichel himself notes, this book should be read in conjunction with his earlier work, Problems of Psychoanalytic Technique (The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1941). See also, Otto Fenichel (Hanna Fenichel and David Rapaport, eds.) The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel: First Series (W.W. Norton & Co., 1953), and Otto Fenichel (Hanna Fenichel and David Rapaport, eds.) The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel: Second Series (W.W. Norton & Co., 1954). 

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